The Verve song, "Bitter Sweet Symphony", is famous for its haunting chorus, infamous video and the Rolling Stone's accusations of plagiarism. However, it's the lyrics that should interest marketers, especially the line "I'm a million different people from one day to the next".
These words demonstrate an important human insight - that who we are changes from moment to moment and context to context. The implication for advertisers is that we should be less obsessed by target audiences and instead focus more on identifying the moments when consumers are pre-disposed to messaging.
But are the Verve right? Are we really "a million different people from one day to the next"?
The academic evidence
The evidence for fluid personalities stretches back to a classic social psychology experiment undertaken in 1973 by two eminent Princeton psychologists: Daniel Batson and John Darley. The pair recruited 40 theology students and gauged their personalities by asking them whether they were studying theology for their own personal salvation or to help others.
They then asked the students to deliver a sermon in a nearby church. This was when they introduced a situational variable. Before the students set off for the church they were either told that they were running late, or that they had plenty of time to reach the venue.
In order to get to the church the students had to go through a particular passageway. Here they passed a confederate of the psychologists slumped against a wall, breathing heavily and in obvious distress. This was the crux of the experiment. Batson and Darley wanted to see what factors affected the likelihood of helping this stranger in distress.
This experiment, like others, showed that personality had no noticeable effect on whether the participants stopped to help. Instead, the biggest determinant was how much of a rush they were in. This seemingly small variation had a tremendous impact: only 10% of those who were late stopped, compared to 63% of those who had plenty of time.
Surprised? Most people assume that situational effects are less important in determining behaviour than the subject's personality. It's such a common, but misplaced, explanation that psychologists call it the fundamental attribution error.
How can marketers apply these findings?
This experiment is relevant to marketers as it suggests that situational or contextual factors are often more important than personality in determining behaviour. This undermines one of advertising's most deeply held beliefs: that brands must identify and then focus their communications on a core target audience. Batson and Darley's findings suggest that brands should focus as much on target contexts as they do target audiences.
But what context is best?
The final consideration that this experiment raises is which context brands should focus on. This is not straightforward, as a twist in the experiment demonstrates.
The psychologists told half the participants to give a sermon on their job prospects, and the remainder to talk about the parable of the Good Samaritan. It's hard to think of a topic better suited to encouraging the helping of strangers than the Good Samaritan. Yet the sermon topic made no difference to the likelihood of helping.
The twist suggests it's critical for brands to reach their customers in the right context, but that finding that context is not simple. Brands need to test, rather than assume, which context is most appropriate for their message: whether that's when their targets are in a good mood or a foul one; distracted or attentive; in public or private.